Conformity - Social Psychology

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Organizational Studies/Psychology 103
Take Home Exam 2, Summer Session, 2010
1. Define conformity, and distinguish between compliance, obedience, and acceptance, giving examples of each. What types of influences lead to conformity? When are we likely to conform and why does it have a negative connotation in Western society? Compare and contrast the conformity experiments of Sherif and Asch. Describe their methodology and the results that they observed. What processes seem to be at work in each case? In your view, would we get the same results today?

Conformity is defined by Aronson (1988) as ‘a change in a persons behaviour or opinions as a result of real or imagined pressure from a person or group of people. Sherif’s (1935) study of the autokinetic effect, which was an optical illusion, is one of the classic conformity experiments. He placed people in a completely dark room and let them observe a pinprick of light for some time; this gave them the illusion that the light moved erratically. Sherif asked individuals to estimate how far the light moved on several trials. Their estimates were typical to that individual. He then asked people the same question in-groups of two or three. Their estimates were of a normative value, (typical to that group). When people were alone again they continued to estimate consistent with the group norm.

Sherif’s (1935) study was ambiguous, (there was no right or wrong answer), and this made it difficult to draw any definite conclusions about conformity. It meant that individuals relied on the judgments of others when they had no clear way of deciding what judgments to make for themselves. Conformity effects would be better assessed more directly, by having all but one of the participants taking part to give the same answer and then seeing what effect this has on the remaining participant. Jacobs and Campbell carried out an experiment such as this in 1961, using the autokinetic effect. They found strong evidence of conformity. Asch (1955) criticized Sherif’s (1935) study as being ambiguous and uncertain. In his 1955 conformity study, where he asked people to take part in a ‘simple perception task’, he showed them slides of several lines and asked them which of the three comparison lines was similar to another. The group he used consisted of confederates of the experimenter and the participant, (the confederates were unknown to the participant), and most of the confederates answered before the participant. On eleven different occasions the confederates gave what was clearly the wrong answer, before the participant was asked to give his. Seventy five percent of participants followed the group on at least one occasion and gave the wrong answer. Some said they did not believe the group was correct but simply went along with them in order to fit in. When Asch tested individuals alone they made fewer than 1% mistakes and when the same participants were in a group that made errors in judgments, they make more than 33% errors. We make errors in judgments to fit in with the rest of the group - even when we know the judgment is incorrect. We rely on others for information about reality, about the validity of our feelings, decisions, behavior etc. We conform because we are unsure of our judgment and not assertive enough. We conform because we need approval and validation. This study took place in America in the fifties and this may show why people conformed. At the time it was conducted ‘doing your own thing’ was not socially acceptable. Also, Asch’s participants were put in an embarrassing position; they were all in the same room and had to give their answers out loud. This may have led to greater levels of conformity due to the particular culture at the time. Why do people conform? Why is it that some people will follow others and some people will strive for individuality? A very influential and widely accepted account of group influence is Deutsch...
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